Open Source Analysis of the RQ-170 Stealth Sentinel Loss to Iran

Courtesy of Recorded Future:
The loss of the RQ-170 Stealth Sentinel drone to Iran is potentially one of the most critical events that has occurred in 2011 because it implies an offensive electronic warfare or cyber capability that no one expected Iran to have. Now that Iran has released a video of the captured drone and the U.S. government has confirmed that it's authentic, it's clear that the original FARS report claiming that it was captured via electronic means may have been accurate in spite of unanimous Western media reports to the contrary; i.e., that it was shot down.

EMEA's strategic intelligence report on the RQ-170 says that the Stealth Sentinel is a high altitude and long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed and manufactured by Skunk Works, a division of Lockheed Martin Corporation, for the United States Air Force (USAF). According to EMEA:
The UAV can capture real time imagery of the battlefield and transfer the data to the ground control station (GCS) through a line of sight (LOS) communication data link. The 27.43m wide and 1.82m high aerial vehicle was designed to execute intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition (ISTAR) and electronic warfare missions over a target area.
According to Earl Lum, President of EJL Wireless Research LLC what is supposed to happen when an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) like the RQ-170 loses its comms link is that it should autonomously follow a pre-programmed lost-link profile consisting of waypoints at various altitudes, forming a loop until it re-establishes contact or crashes. The communication link for the UAVs is typically today LOS (line of sight). If it falls below the mountains and loses LOS, it is supposed to then go through this process. However while this applies to UAVs in general it may not be the case with the RQ-170.

Navigation technology
According to the EMEA report, the RQ-170 can be controlled either manually from the GCS or through autonomous mode. An automatic launch and recovery (ALR) system facilitates the aircraft to land safely when communication with the control station fails.

Ground control station
The GCS of the RQ-170 displays the real time imagery or videos captured by the vehicle's payload cameras onboard. The data supplied by the vehicle is retrieved, processed, stored and monitored at the control station which was designed and built by Skunk Works. The GCS tracks, controls and monitors the RQ-170 by transferring commands to the vehicle via LOS SATCOM data link. The sentinel is being operated by 432nd wing of air combat command (ACC) at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and 30th reconnaissance squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada.

Related cyber incidents that may have compromised the RQ-170:
- A South Korean newspaper, JoongAng Daily, reported in December 2009 that the RQ-170 was flight tested in South Korea to supersede the U-2 aircraft at Osan Air Base for carrying out missions over North Korea. North Korea is an ally of Iran and has conducted offensive CNE (Computer Network Exploitation) and CNA (Computer Network Attack) missions against South Korea repeatedly for several years. It's unknown what information has been stolen however this type of intelligence is highly sought after and its reasonable to assume that the DPRK would include it on a CNE acquisitions list.
- Lockheed Martin reported a cyber attack in June, 2011 that lasted about one week. LM didn't report what was taken however as with the DPRK example, UAV research has been targeted at U.S. defense firms as late as this past summer according to my own confidential sources.
- Creech Air Force Base experienced a malware infection that impacted its UAV Ground Control Stations in October 2011. It's public report on the incident was confusedly written and lacked details regarding the malware involved, its propagation and its remediation.

The objective of this article is to assess possibilities. Based on EMEA's report on the RQ-170, it appears that the drone had the ability to land itself without operator control. I'd appreciate hearing from any experts who can confirm whether that's the case or not. If it is, then Iran may have lucked out. If it isn't, then Iran's claim that it used its electronic warfare capacity to assume operational control of this substantial U.S. military asset appears to be true. Considering how easy it is for an adversary to conduct CNE against targeted U.S. networks, this is probably a capability that they obtained from one of many mercenary hacker crews who engage in that type of activity. While the scope of this article is hypothetical, the CNE targeting of UAV R&D is a fact born out by my own company's work in this area. Iran may or may not have that capability now but eventually it will. The RQ-170 event should be a massive wake-up call on the part of the U.S. Air Force to reinstall a self-destruct capability, harden the RQ-170's operating system, and examine potential vulnerabilities in its UAV fleet supply chain.

UPDATE (1528 PST 09DEC11): From an article in today's SF Gate:

The most frightening prospect raised by what appears to be a largely intact Sentinel is that the Iranians' second claim about how they brought it down -- by hacking into its controls and landing it themselves -- might be true, said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke only on the basis of anonymity because the RQ-170 is part of a Secret Compartmented Intelligence (SCI) program, a classification higher than Top Secret.
The official said the possibility that the Iranians or someone else hacked into the drone's satellite communications is doubly alarming because it would mean that Iranian or other cyber-warfare officers were able to disable the Sentinel's automatic self-destruct, holding pattern and return-to-base mechanisms. Those are intended to prevent the plane's secret flight control, optical, radar, surveillance and communications technology from falling into the wrong hands if its controllers at Creech Lake Air Force Base or the Tonopah Test Range, both in Nevada, lose contact with it.
UPDATE (1708 PST 22DEC11): Cryptome has an interesting thread on the use of the RSA cyber to protect the GPS Red band used on military systems like the RQ-170. This suggests that data from the RSA breach last March may have been shared with the Iranians.

UPDATE (0715 PST 05JAN12): AviationWeek has an excellent technical article on the F-22 technology used on the RQ-170.

Was Iran's Downing of RQ-170 Related to the Malware Infection at Creech AFB?
How Iran May Have Captured An RQ-170 Stealth Drone
U.S. Air Force Demonstrates How Not To Report A Malware Attack